The E-Gov Act's legacy
Mark Forman, OMB's first e-gov leader, fears that today's federal IT community has become "insulators of the bureaucracy."
Much of today’s progress in digital government can be traced back to the E-Government Act of 2002. At a Dec. 17 Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event on the "past, present and future of federal e-government," several former officials who were present at the legislation's creation noted that it laid the foundation for the current Digital Government Strategy, cybersecurity standards and even much of the shared-services efforts related to IT acquisition.
"A number of the [infrastructure decisions] that now drive the innovation agenda really had their birth in the E-Government Act," said Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. A decade ago, he was the career federal executive tapped as the George W. Bush administration's point person for the E-Government Act as it made its way through Congress.
The bill's original objectives, however, were even more ambitious.
When the law was enacted in 2002, the idea was to radically overhaul government services and processes with technology. Agencies were asked not only to look at their business processes but the methods and media they used to communicate with the public, their own employees and the communities with which they did business. “The goals of the act were so obvious to everybody, it was kind of a no-brainer,” Tom Simmons, area vice president of government operations at Citrix Systems, told FCW in a separate interview.
Those objectives -- to streamline the government, provide better services to the public and establish a federal CIO position -- have been embraced in the past 10 years, Simmons said. More important, though, they laid the groundwork for today’s digital government and mobility initiatives.
Panelists at the ITIF event cited other important consequences, most notably related to security and standards. Because the E-Government Act provided for centralized IT procurement, former Office of Management and Budget Administrator for E-Government and IT Karen Evans said, "we were able to do things like standards for encryption that we would never have been able to do without the procurement authority."
Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) recalled the pushback he faced on certain reforms and said he deliberately waited until the eleventh hour to add key provisions to the bill. "We would have liked to have made [standardizations] even broader, but there was tremendous opposition" from individual agencies and the companies that provided their one-off IT services, he said. "If we'd left [those provisions] hanging out there for six months, the bill would have been dead."
According to Simmons, however, the biggest change in the past 10 years has been in the priority agencies now give to the use of technology as a tool for doing things more efficiently.
“Every agency now has a website, and not only does it contain good, solid information about the agency and personnel, but more and more agencies are providing services via the Internet as a primary means of offering support,” Simmons said.
What also transpired in the past decade is the shift away from paper. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, began offering digital tax filing after years of paper tax returns. And victims of natural disasters can now apply online for federal assistance instead of sending in paper claims.
“You don’t get lost in that paper chase that sometimes typified government bureaucracy,” Simmons said.
The benefits of automated processes have extended far beyond filing tax returns and claims, however. As Evans noted at the event, the Regulations.gov site brought together the formerly scattered elements of the agency rule-making process in one place for interested citizens, while Recreation.gov collected information at the state, local and federal levels to make it easier for Americans to plan activities online. Both sites sprang from the E-Government Act, Evans said, and both demanded serious changes from agencies used to operating in their own silos.
The job search process for prospective government employees has also been streamlined, Simmons said, and now includes the option to apply online. New hires can also sign up for benefits via the Web and find resources to smooth the on-boarding process.
“It really opens the door for when we go forward with things like telework and ‘bring your own device’ that further embrace that Internet connectivity to provide greater access, lower costs, lower absenteeism, better quality of employees,” Simmons said. “And it all can be linked back to the goals and objectives and the way government has reacted to the e-government initiative.”
A September report from the Government Accountability Office recognizes the advances the government has made in adopting most provisions of the act but noted that more work is needed. Panelists at the ITIF event concurred, noting that budget pressures and agency turf battles complicate attempts to fully embrace the legislation's goals.
"Agencies focus on their agency budgets," Davis said. Putting effort into efficiency and cost savings not only fails to draw praise but often results in a reduced budget as the "reward."
"The nature of government makes this very difficult without some strong leadership from OMB," Davis said. "There is no benefit to those agencies, even though there's an overall benefit to government."
Mark Forman, who preceded Evans as OMB's administrator for e-government and IT, put it even more forcefully: "I fear that the government IT community has basically become the insulators of the bureaucracy rather than the catalysts for innovations."
For Simmons, two main aspects in particular needs to be addressed: culture and established business practices that need to change in a technology-enabled world.
The secondary element is the policy aspect: Security policies written for fiscal documents in a static work environment are now being challenged by the possibilities and capabilities of today’s technology, Simmons said.
“As we look at those policies, there are some changes that need to be made,” he said. “Some technologies...should be at least allowed for in the security policy and the overall management policy of IT infrastructure so that we can improve and enhance the remote access to information by government and citizenry without sacrificing the key elements of security put in place many, many years ago,” he said.